Typically today, “unity of the left” means “everybody must follow me!”
But a lot of activists would sincerely like to see honest unification and are frustrated when unsuccessful. The truth is that the so-called “left” is not united for terrible reasons such as personal egotism, but also for a more solid reason: we operate under different theories.
The “Do Good” Theory
If you are nice to other people, they will be nice to you. This will spread and, before too long, everybody will be nice to everybody else and we’ll have a nice world.
The first socialists, usually held to be affluent Frenchmen, were do good thinkers and theorists. They projected that we need societies that are operated for the benefit of the people within those societies. We should expand the democracy we have into a complete and total democracy where everyone has an equal chance at happiness.
In a world run, at that time, by cruel aristocrats, these early socialists made a wonderful and worthwhile contribution, but they didn’t put a whole lot of thinking into how their vision could become reality.
To be good, one should oppose the current system and the bad people who run it.
Was it the chicken or the egg that came first, or did they evolve together? As those who ruled societies began to develop a theoretical justification for their pillage, others reacted by developing their own organizations and ideas. Today we think of the two sides as “conservatives” who want to conserve the policies of the past and “liberals” who have a vague idea of some kind of forward motion in society.
Both terms are distorted beyond recognition today, especially because the same person or group may be “liberal” on some issues and “conservative” on others. The terms weren’t very clear to begin with. The worst example of semantic confusion today is probably the term “neo-liberal” which means someone who supports imperialism in foreign affairs because they want “liberal” foreign policies that won’t restrict transnational corporations. The worst “conservatives” on domestic policies are “neo-liberals” on foreign affairs!
Worse, it’s probably true that no one person fits neatly into any of the categories of this essay. We may be able to separate ideas to an extent, but people are always changing and don’t willingly shoehorn.
The Progressive peoples outside the United States hate neo-liberals. They probably aren’t too crazy about ordinary American liberals either, because their good intentions don’t usually extend outside their own immediate sphere.
Liberals don’t really operate from a strong theoretical base, which is why they are sometimes called “knee-jerk liberals.” But they are generally on the side of progress.
Good people should organize together in opposition to bad people
Liberals tend to resist organizing. “Organizing liberals is like herding cats,” one great liberal commentator used to say. But the more serious ones recognize the struggle for power and organize. Many of them become social democrats. The first socialist political parties called themselves social democrats. That was true of the one in America and the one in Russia. They organized to combat the status quo.
Historically, the Americans and the Russians had a lot in common before 1917. They were the only socialist parties in the world, among the many, that did not support their own capitalists during World War I. The split came later.
The social democrats were and are the largest groups of organized socialist-thinking liberals. In America today, we still have the old Socialist Party, several of its splits and variants including Democratic Socialists of America, and the Bernie Sanders “Our Revolution” movement. Many leading American unionists have been unspoken social democrats. In general, social democrats believe that their consistent political activities will gradually convince everyone to vote them into office and keep them there. Then they will they transform the society that exists into the brave new world.
In Europe, social democrats are indeed elected into power over and over again, but have never been able to stay in power and effect any kind of long-term transformation. American social democrats have seldom tasted significant power, but they have high hopes of transforming the Democratic Party to meet their ends.
We need militant action to destroy the bad people, then the good people will take over
While liberals more or less ignore the theory and organizations of rulers, anarchists think that destroying the other side is prerequisite to building ours. Some of the best labor heroes and heroines in America styled themselves anarchists. Although violence is not necessarily part of their ideology, they tend to be susceptible to it, and it is relatively easy for the reactionaries to paint anarchists with the brush of violence.
Another big problem for the anarchists is their tendency to spend so much time and energy arguing with the social democrats.
I purposely put the anarchists as being more developed than the social democrats because they recognize that enemies must be overcome if progress is to be made. The anarchists may not have been very effective, and aren’t effective today, but they knew that there are two sides to the struggle for progress, just as in any other war.
Nationalists and Other Forms of Identity Politics
The meek, properly organized and motivated, shall inherit the Earth
Capitalists oppress everybody, even each other if they get the chance. The capitalists of the United States, would crush those of China if they could, and vice versa.
But all oppression is not the same. The historic and ongoing oppression of African Americans in America is one striking example, but it doesn’t mean that American women weren’t oppressed, nor does it mean that Latinos, homosexuals, and, yes, white working men aren’t oppressed as well.
All oppressed people, which means all of us, are oppressed in different ways and tend to have different ideologies and organizations trying to represent us. Those organizations and ideologies do not usually try very hard to work together, but some of them do. Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King Jr both come to mind as great leaders of a particular national ideology who eventually recognized the need for broader unity. It is not a coincidence that they were both murdered before they went very far with their thinking.
The general idea that the exploited peoples should fight back, while very progressive in itself, has been elevated into a theory of socialists struggle. Certain ideologists and groups believe that the “most exploited,” having the most reason, are the most likely to rise up against capitalism and create a socialist world. It sounds good.
It sounds so good that hundreds, probably thousands, of college-educated activists go into America’s ghettos to recruit, train, and motivate those revolutionaries that they know are there.
Does it sound patronizing? Yes, it is. Will it work? No. One reason it won’t work is that it lacks recognition of the enemy, which even the anarchists knew about. The enemy knows it won’t work and cheerfully provides, through their philanthropy and churches, funding for these patronizing projects. During the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. government funded its own organizations that worked on this theory. Vista Volunteers was more effective than they intended, and has been toned down. I think they call it Americorps now.
Saul Alinsky and Dorothy Day were the patron saints of identity politics, Several organizations still find plenty of funding and continue today.
Organize all workers, and boss rule shall wither
While I’m oversimplifying everything, I may as well over-simplify sindicalism. Wikipedia has a really good essay on it. They say that it’s both a system to overcome capitalism and an economic system to run things afterward.
The Industrial Workers of the World always denied being sindicalists. They denied being anarchists. They denied being anarcho-sindicalists. But they are usually put forward as the best American example of all three.
Sindicalists, including some very good trade union leaders, believe that the entire working class can be organized by their workplaces and categories of work. Once that is done, a general strike can be called and the bosses will capitulate. Political work, especially elections, are confusing and not important. Elections are particularly to be avoided because they tend to cause workers to collaborate with non-workers and even with bosses.
After the bosses are brushed aside, according to the sindicalists, workers will already be organized to operate the economy for the good of all.
A lot of sindicalists and a lot of social democrats became communists, especially after the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party demonstrated that it was possible to organize workers politically, form alliances with other progressives, and do away with the capitalists.
Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, German student activists, said that they had to combine the rosy hopes of the French socialists with solid historical analysis and the scientific method to suggest a path to progress. Vladimir Lenin convinced the majority (Russian word: bolshevik) of the Russian socialists to follow that path to victory.
There was jubilation on the workers’ side, but the bosses side was extremely unhappy — and they had most of the weaponry; consequently the 1917 revolution was contained and its supporters knew great difficulties. Amazingly, Lenin’s revolution endured 70 years and continues to appeal to many thinking activists around the world.
Cadres and Vanguards
All the revolution really needs is us!
The communists committed themselves to the world working class in all arenas of struggle. “The communists have no interests outside of the working class” was their guiding principle.
But some groups saw something different in Lenin’s example. They saw his success as having built a revolutionary, combative political party as key to the win in Russia, rather than his commitment to the ideas of Marx and Engels. To some groups, building a party of deeply committed cadre revolutionary soldiers who could act as an example to less advanced workers was more important than an actual commitment to the working class in all things.
These parties were meant to be the vanguard of all revolutionary struggle. They would set such a good example that other working people would follow them into successful revolutionary action. They tended to avoid electoral politics because it was tainted. Since they were clearly the chosen ones, they tended to argue with everybody else in the progressive movement, and were usually thought of as “splitters.” I used to be one of them.
Who’s Who Today?
The pressures on the Soviet Union resulted in cracks and fissures throughout the world. The social democrats in America kicked the communists out. The IWW blamed and defamed them. The Trotskyites and the Maoists split them. When the Soviet Union eventually collapsed, individuals and ideologies ran helter-skelter every which-a-way.
Today the old Communist Party USA has largely drifted backward into social democracy. The Maoists are and always were nationalists. The IWW was and is sindicalist and anarchistic. Those who haven’t really thought it out, or don’t want to, are social democrats, liberals and do-goods. Since they split so often, there are too many vanguardist parties to try to name, and more are forming during this wonderful current upsurge.
There are wonderful, well-intentioned, thoughtful people in every category I’ve named. From the softest do-goods to the bitterest vanguard, we belong together.
That’s our “left” today, struggling toward the unity that it must achieve. The key word here is “must.” Progressives in America will unite because, eventually, we will realize collectively that we have to.
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